Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Seeing Great Ideas through to the Finish Line

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Seeing Great Ideas through to the Finish Line

Article excerpt

Royal Academy of Engineering's next president is keen to reduce UK 'sniffiness' about applied research

For an institution whose members are at the cutting edge of technology and innovation, the track record on gender equity in the Royal Academy of Engineering's uppermost echelon is decidedly behind the times.

Come September, the body will elect the first female president in its almost 40-year history. This is perhaps unsurprising given the startling statistic that just 4 per cent of professional engineers in the UK workforce are female, according to a recent survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

But in the view of Dame Ann Dowling, the council of the Royal Academy of Engineering's sole nominee to succeed Sir John Parker, the fact that she is a woman is unimportant. Talking to Times Higher Education ahead of the start of her tenure, the discussion revolved around her priorities for science and innovation policy, skills shortages and academia-industrial relations, rather than dwelling on the gender gap.

Dame Ann, who is head of the University of Cambridge's engineering department, explained that during her five years in the RAE role she hopes to boost the profile of applied - or, as she likes to call it, use-inspired - research.

It is something she knows a thing or two about. Her almost 40-year career in research spans many high-profile industrial projects, including quietening the roar of Concorde, clean combustion and next-generation aircraft. She also chairs the University Gas Turbine Partnership with Rolls-Royce and in 2012 became a non-executive director at BP.

As president of the academy, she hopes to challenge the widely held notion that excellent research can happen only at the fundamental level.

"As a country we can be a bit sniffy [about applied research]," she said. "We tend to think that very fundamental blue-skies research is in some way more challenging. I see it completely the opposite way. If researchers start by trying to solve a real problem then they are inspired to go outside their comfort zone, try different techniques and think outside the box."

She hopes to "really articulate the case" to government and industry that if research is to make a difference, investment needs to carry on until an idea is ready to be implemented. Funders typically pull out of research too early in practical development, she explained.

This could be because applied research takes longer but there may be other factors at play, she indicated. "Sometimes the research councils do not necessarily help because they are always looking for what the new thing is, rather than investing where some fundamental [work] has already started," she said.

Innovation work needs cash

"Too often we fall back on a mantra that we are very good at core science but not so good at innovation," said Dame Ann, who believes that the UK is in fact "very good at innovation" but does not invest enough in it.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, said in late July that the government should double the budget of the UK's innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board. Dame Ann agreed that the TSB, which "plays a very important role", needs more money because its "budget is very small in comparison with [those of] the research councils", although she admitted that she would be "less happy" if a funding increase came at the research councils' expense.

However, she said the UK was now in a "very good place" to do more work in the applied arena, thanks to the Industrial Strategy formulated by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. …

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